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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Salvation Army’s presence in Wash. high school sparks controversy

By Shaun Knittel -

Greg Stair
Greg Stair
The holiday season has long been a time when those who have give to those who do not. And students at H. M. Jackson High School (HMJHS) in Everett, Wash., are no different.

The Associated Student Body (ASB) commits to a community service project each year to raise food and funds for families in Snohomish County. Greg Stair, a teacher at Everett High School and a teacher’s union representative who serves on the Everett Public Schools District Equity and Access Advisory Council, applauds the students’ efforts. There is, however, just one problem-the ASB has chosen the city’s branch of the Salvation Army as its beneficiary for the last three year.

As an openly gay man and the club adviser for his school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Stair cannot reconcile the fact officials have allowed an organization known for its anti-LGBT policies into Everett’s public schools. "The Salvation Army has a disturbing policy in regards to the LGBT community," said Stair. "As the Everett High School GSA adviser I think we need to set a good example for our students. This is not the example I want my students to see."

Stair bases his views on the Salvation Army’s belief statement on homosexuality that, among other things, describes "sexual attraction to the same sex" as "a matter of profound complexity."

"Scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex," reads the statement. "The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage."

The Salvation Army further states it reserves the right to use its own religious and moral convictions to screen potential employees and volunteers.

"This latter statement would seem to exclude any healthy gay man or woman who engages in gay sex because that would be a violation of their moral position," said Stair. "This would, to me, mean that the Salvation Army discriminates against gay people. It seems unreasonable to expect a person top stay celibate their entire life."

More than 25,000 volunteers ring bells and accept cash donations in their iconic red buckets across the country each holiday season.

Stair worries that allowing an anti-LGBT organization on campus may cause some students to feel left out or even discriminated against.

"If you’re a LGBT student at Jackson High School you are forced to either sacrifice your identity to help the needy or not participate," he said. "That’s not a fair choice."

So how did the Salvation Army end up in H. M. Jackson High School?

"ASB organizations in schools across Washington State are governed by students," said Everett School District officials in a statement. "Students have leadership positions and make decisions about student-led projects. At HMJHS, an ASB community service project raises food and funds for the Everett branch of the Salvation Army for distribution in the local community for families in need. Students’ participation in the project is voluntary. No grades are given for participation; participation is not tied to academic requirements."

Stair contacted the school and district officials in 2008 to explain the organization’s anti-LGBT policies. He contacted Dr. Gary Cohn, superintendent of the Everett School District, in 2009 and showed him articles that detailed the charity’s homophobic stances.

"As a result of those concerns, ASB students worked with the high school administration to invite an official of the Everett branch of the Salvation Army to explain this branch’s philosophy and beliefs, hiring practices and policy about helping those in need," noted school officials.

They said the students decided to continue work with the Salvation Army after the meeting.

"The students felt confident this branch is serving the very people the ASB wanted to help," added the school district. "The students felt this branch’s religious beliefs did not hamper ASB’s desire to help its school and neighborhood families. Thus, HMJHS ASB students are again conducting a holiday food and fun drive to help families served by the Everett branch of the Salvation Army."

Stair once again sat down with school officials, but local Salvation Army spokesperson Kathy Lovin denied her organization discriminates.

"The only requirement for service at any Salvation Army facility is need," she said. "No one is denied service because of his or her religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or country of origin."

Lovin added the Salvation Army’s mission speaks for itself-preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in his name without discrimination.

"The Salvation Army is an equal opportunity employer," she said. "Employees are hired based on their skill, talent or experience relative to the job they’re seeking. In the case of ministerial positions, the Salvation Army hires people with skill, talent or experience and who are professing Christians."

Lovin said the Salvation Army provides transitional and permanent housing programs, meals, a supplemental food bank and other services to more than 28,000 people in Snohomish County each year. "All are welcome to volunteer for the Salvation Army as long as their focus is on joining us to care for people in need and not on promoting their own interests," she added.

Cohn again praised the students who work with the Salvation Army, but he acknowledged Stair’s ongoing concerns.

"We care about everyone involved-the students whose intentions are to help others, the Salvation Army’s commitment to serve all, no matter their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, the families depending upon these charitable efforts and those who feel marginalized by the Salvation Army’s stance on homosexuality," said Cohn. "We are obligated to maintain the religious neutrality of the district and support and respect the rights of all. We are also obligated to provide educational opportunities and discussions for students who will be our nation’s future leaders. This district values inclusivity, open conversations and informed decisions. HMJHS students will be meeting with voices on all sides of this question after the first of the year, and we will support them in whatever decision they make as a result of those discussions."

Stair refuses to back down. And he even suggested school officials’ own homophobia could be at play.

"I have been told numerous times by administration and the District’s own trainers that they believe in equality for all, but apparently they mean everybody but ’the gays’," said Stair. "If this was a group that discriminated against an ethnic minority we would not be having this discussion."
Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News. 

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